The Senate, recently, passed into law a bill for an Act to prevent, prohibit and redress sexual harassment of students in tertiary educational institutions. The bill, with 25 clauses, seeks to promote and protect ethical standards in tertiary institutions. It also seeks to protect students against sexual harassment as well as prevent sexual harassment of students by educators in tertiary institutions. The bill also proposes up to 14 years jail term for offenders with a minimum of 5 years, without an option of fine for any educator who commits sexual offences in tertiary institutions.
It defines sexual offences as including sexual intercourse with a student or demands for sex from a student or a prospective student or intimidating or creating a hostile or offensive environment for the student by soliciting for sex or making sexual advances.
This bill became necessary following public outcry over an upsurge in sexual harassment cases in tertiary institutions across the country. We recall the BBC’s Sex for Grades documentary last year. The film was part of a year-long investigation by BBC Africa Eye into sexual harassments in West African universities. At the University of Lagos, a pastor and academic, was caught asking inappropriate questions of an undercover BBC journalist posing as a 17 year old prospective student. He physically harassed her and repeatedly asked her to kiss him in his office.
This newspaper also recalls the case of a lecturer in the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Administration, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, who was accused by one of his students, of sexually harassing her. Also the case of a lecturer in the Department of Accounting at the same OAU, who was indicted for sexually harassing a female student and was dismissed from the services of the university.
The said lecturer was consequently prosecuted by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
Indeed , in the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (Association of American Universities, 2015), which polled more than 150,000 students, female graduate students who experienced sexual harassment identified the offender as a teacher or adviser at more than three times the rate of female undergraduates.
While we commend our lawmakers for passing this bill which we also hope will signed into law expeditiously to stem the tide of sexual harassment in the nation’s tertiary institutions, it is important for the records to point out this newspaper’s reservations about some of the clauses contained in this much expected bill
For instance, section 7 of the bill which was described as the kernel of the bill inputs innocence on the part of the student who is sexually exposed to a lecturer, imposing liability solely on the lecturer who will be made to take the flak for the irresponsible behaviour when the law comes into effect.
In our considered opinion, this may be exposing the lecturers to the inanities of unserious students who may use it to implicate them. If the lecturer fails her deservedly and based on this clause, a crafty student can decide to set him up and ensnare him in a sexual harassment allegation. While there are female students who get harassed by lecturers, there is no gainsaying it that some students also go out of their way to lure lecturers with sex to get good grades. This section may see innocent lecturers are being set up by unscrupulous female students.
Sadly, in the society today and in any sexual harassment or rape case, the man is always presumed guilty until proven innocent. This attitude has seen many women play the sexual harassment and rape card against men who refuse to accede to their pernicious demands. A mere disagreement between a lecturer and his female student on an academic matter, can, relying on this clause be misconstrued as sexual harassment.
Besides, we also believe that the bill should not be limited to sexual harassment in the tertiary institutions alone. Women are being constantly sexually harassed every day in the work places, religious houses, markets and on the streets. The bill ought to be holistic enough to capture all aspects of sexual harassment against women.
Consequently, we call for evidence-based prosecution as against the status of innocence being conferred on the students by the bill. Intent and action must be proven in trial under the bill when passed and assented to .While there is an urgent need to protect women from sexual predators in our tertiary institutions, lecturers also need to be protected from venomous students who may use the law as an instrument of blackmail.